1. Remembering a remarkable 3M scientist: The life and legacy of Paul E. Hansen
3M Health Care
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    Remembering a remarkable 3M scientist: The life and legacy of Paul E. Hansen

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    • Perhaps the greatest legacy of a 3M scientist is his or her innovations. The technologies and inventions our scientists create will live on – even after scientists have moved on. Their contributions not only improve lives but change our world for the better. As we mourn the passing of our widely admired friend and colleague, 3M scientist Paul E. Hansen, we take comfort in this beautiful tribute written by his daughter, Kris Hansen, global technical service leader in 3M Health Care’s Food Safety Department. Kris reminds us that legacies extend beyond the lab, and, for Paul, that meant fulfilling roles as an inspired leader, a gracious and curious colleague, a thoughtful friend, and, above all, a loving husband, father and grandfather.

    Paul and Kris Hansen
    Paul E. Hansen, 1932-2021

    • It was not common for my dad to give me advice. So, when he offered some guidance before my first day of work post-graduate school, I was surprised. It would have been downright silly not to listen carefully to advice coming from one of 3M’s most successful innovators before I started a new job at 3M. It was summer, and we were working together to fix a lawn mower – actually, he was fixing it, and I was sitting next to him handing over requested tools. I remember pressing my hands into the hot asphalt as I leaned backwards, feeling the rocks bite my skin.

      “Always have a good attitude,” he said. “People love to work on projects you’re excited about – everyone wants to be involved in something good.” He reached further into the guts of the mower, straining to tighten a bolt. “When you have success, be sure to share it as widely as you can. It doesn’t cost you anything to make sure people understand how much you appreciate their help, and when you do, they’ll always want to work with you again.” Bolt tightened, he snapped the cover back in place on the mower and wiped his hands on his pants. “Be humble. Most people don’t know as much as they think they do, and arrogance doesn’t make any friends.”

      And that was it.

      I got up off the ground, he started the lawn mower, and I headed off to mow the grass, mulling over this thoughtful speech.

      I have often thought of my dad’s advice and consider how his philosophy drove his own success. When I started working at 3M, I was always asked if I was Paul’s daughter. I never paused to consider my response.

      I claimed him as readily as I could.

      Inevitably, people would say, “I worked with Paul years ago and I remember he came by, and he had some fibers/film/tape in his pocket, and he asked me, ‘What do you think of this? Would it work for that?’” The person would laugh and say how my dad shared some totally outlandish concept that turned out to be brilliant. Or, my dad introduced this person to someone in a completely different area and the new acquaintances worked on a project together. I knew when I started working at 3M that I would always be in his shadow.

      That thought never bothered me at all.

      I suppose the archetypal innovator is the mad scientist, working alone in their lab, but my dad’s success was borne of a different dynamic. He brought people together, made unlikely connections, fostered relationships and encouraged productivity. He was wildly creative, an out-of-the-box thinker, a cheerleader, an enabler, and a champion that gave people the confidence to step forward with their ideas.

      He was his own advice embodied as a white-haired, affable engineer: A positive force that gave people the courage to make “crazy” great. He was a boundless thinker and remains the only person I know that successfully used strapping tape to secure a canoe to the roof of a car when the rope got left at the campsite ten miles back.

      My dad is one of the original patent holders for the foundational material and shape that became the most sought-after piece of personal protective equipment during the global pandemic. Decades ago, he played with different non-woven fibers and learned how to make a variety of form factors, talking to people all over 3M about what he had. Once, he and a co-worker landed on the idea of making a non-woven bra cup. After a female co-worker tried it and said it was the most uncomfortable bra she’d ever worn, it was just a matter of time before the guys assuaged their bra-based failure by putting the cup over their lower face and realizing they had, in fact, created a solution. It had a different function than originally intended, but infinitely more useful. It turns out – the disposable face mask respirator, the foundation of the N95, was born.

      Above all, my dad liked to be productive.

      A day by the lake for the rest of us meant a day raking weeds, building a wall or digging a trench. He lived to be useful. Towards the end of his life, I asked him what his favorite invention was. He readily offered his answer: 3M™ Coban™ Self Adherent Wrap or Coban™. Coban is a self-adhering medical wrap – a thin, conformable bandage that sticks to itself but not to skin. Incredibly useful and extremely gentle – it doesn’t damage even very fragile skin. Coban has myriad uses in the medical field: It holds a bandage in place, applies gentle pressure to a wound site, secures an IV port, acts as a conformable brace for a sore wrist or ankle, and protects a vulnerable joint or bruise. My dad had a Coban cushion in place on his bruised arm when he passed. Beyond that official utility, Coban has lots of uses, both decorative and therapeutic, in the veterinary field. Although it is commonly used to wrap the legs of large animals, I recently visited a friend who was using it to try and correct the tiny legs of a lame baby chick. As you will discover if you ever visit my house, it works wonderfully as a tree wrap, protecting young trees from hungry winter voles or providing a “bandage” to a tree trunk wounded in a storm. It holds tomato branches to their cages, gently securing them so they stay off the ground, and the colored versions have endless uses for marking outdoor tools or adding some colorful security to Halloween costumes.

      Coban reflects its inventor: incredibly useful and extremely gentle.

      I can’t recall a time when my dad bragged about his many accomplishments. His stories were often self-deprecating or told in such a way as to shift the spotlight off himself and on to others. He was a Corporate Scientist at 3M, the highest level of innovator at one of the world’s most innovative companies. He was inducted into 3M’s Carlton Society – a peer-nominated society for those who demonstrate exceptional leadership during a successful product or material innovation – in the middle of his career. I now regret that, upon attending the induction ceremony as a child, I was disappointed in my dad when I realized for the first time that his job as an “engineer” had nothing to do with driving a train. Even 20 years after his retirement, he is remembered as the pioneer whose work drove the initiation of several successful product lines at 3M.

    • Paul Hansen with his wife and daughter

      Most of all, I appreciate my dad as a loving and generous father who valued his family. He loved my mom above anyone else and kept her needs and wishes front and center of his never-ending To-Do list. He maintained strong and positive relationships with his siblings through to their passing. As he aged, his favorite topics to talk about were his kids and grandkids. With each update on a grandchild he would ask, “Are they happy?” or “Do they like that job?” That’s truly all he wanted for them – to be happy and to have the opportunity to work at something they enjoyed and valued.

      I am sad that my father has passed on, but I am even more grateful that I was blessed to be his daughter, that he was my children’s grandfather and that we were all able to learn from and love him all through our lives.

      Rest in peace, Dad.


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